gab, metapolitics, speakfreely, democracy, altright, new right

GAB, fake news and metapolitics

9 minutes to read
Ico Maly

The massive media attention sparked by GoDaddy’s decision to pull support for the radical right social network site GAB after the murderous riot in a synagogue in Pittsburg should urge internet companies to rethink their policies towards hate speech. The damage control policy of blocking activists and platforms after murderous riots raises the impact of these extremists, their platforms and their metapolitical battle. 

GAB, metapolitics and the digital mainstream

GAB is not the first New Right platform that has been denied the services of GoDaddy or other prominent internet companies like PayPal, Google apps or Apple. It will probably not be the last either. 

In the last decade, New Right activists and their platforms have become deeply embedded  in the digital mainstream. They use digital mainstream platforms to mobilize online and offline, to communicate privately and generate money. But most importantly, the New Right uses the digital mainstream as a metapolitical infrastructure. 

It was no coincidence that GAB positioned itself under the #speakfreely flag, nor was it a commitment to democracy or free speech. 

The New Right metapolitical battle is focused on repackaging old skool radical ideas like racism, blood and soil nationalism and anti-feminism and injecting them into the mainstream in order to normalize them. In essence, they are fighting a cultural battle to change politics in the long run. Mainstream digital media are crucial in this metapolitical strategy. They are needed to reach out to the so-called normies. 

It was thus no surprise that GAB was not an instant success. The beta version of GAB was released in August 2016. One year later, they only had 250.000 profiles, most of them New Right activists. The business model was very clear from the start. GAB explicitly positioned itself as an alternative for the ‘so-despised’ Twitter and Facebook within New Right activist circles. 

It was no coincidence that GAB positioned itself under the #speakfreely flag, nor was it a commitment to democracy or free speech. GAB tried to mine a dominant trope among white nationalists, neo-nazis, anti-feminists, incels and ethno-cultural nationalists: namely the idea that (only) the (extreme) right is censored and that all mainstream media and digital giants like Twitter and Facebook are controlled by the left, by cultural Marxists. The free speech banner of GAB and its pepe-like logo functioned as dog whistles for extreme right activists. 

New Right and the digital mainstream

Even though GAB communicated itself as a New Right network, and explicitly tapped into the prevalent ‘anti-mainstream media’ discourse of New Right activists, the networksite was not an instant hit. The reason is evident. New Right activists, their platforms and radical right politicians like Trump indeed continue to mine the tropes of ‘fake news’, ‘blue pilled mainstream news’, Zucc and Dorsey's censorship policies, but they paradoxically do this on Facebook, Twitter and in the mainstream media. 

New Right activists and their platforms are deeply embedded in the digital mainstream. Breitbart knows Facebook’s affordances inside out. Alt-right activists know how to use Search Engine Optimization to fill data voids. InfoWars knows how to monetize content. Blood-and-soil nationalists and racists like Red Ice TV use YouTube to host their vlogs and podcasts. This not only saved them server costs, it helped them find new audiences and more importantly helped them monetize their content. 

These examples are not exceptions; the New Right, ranging from neo-Nazis to radical libertarians is still very well-integrated in the digital mainstream. This is not a coincidence. Stretching the Overton window is impossible when you are only present on the dark web or on small fringe websites. 

New Right activists and celebrities therefore openly prefer YouTube over DTube or BitChut, Twitter and Facebook over GAB, Patreon over Hatreon or WeSearchr. Their integration in mainstream digital media, is at the heart of their metapolitical strategy. 

Mainstream digital media, and not fringe right wing media, became huge sources of traffic for this alternative New Right network of platforms and activists.

Unite the Right and the rise of GAB

GAB thus tried to answer a need that was not (yet) established. Alt-right celebrity Richard Spencer, for instance, did set up a profile on GAB in October 2016, but he rarely used it. What's more, he immediately asked on Twitter if someone already built a Twitter-to-Gab automator on Twitter. Twitter clearly was his first choice. Mainstream media are prioritized within activist's circles. Even very radical blood-and-soil shows like Red Ice try to stay within the limits set by major players as Reddit. 

It is no coincidence that GAB was only euphoric mid-August 2017, a full year after its release. In July 2017, GAB set up a fund raising round and on 14 August 2017, GAB announced on their Medium account that they raised 520.000 dollar. On 17 August, GAB released a new statement on their Medium account. In the last three days, they were able to raise another 480.000 dollars.

This sudden success was the direct result of the crackdown by mainstream digital media on alt-right activists and their platforms after the ‘Unite the Right’ Tiki torch march, and especially after the killer car ride in Charlottesville. As a result, many alt-right activists and their platforms like The Daily Stormer, The Right Stuff, The League of the South and American Vanguard were denied service by their hosting companies.

Moreover, Facebook deleted the accounts of The League of the South, Vanguard America, the National Policy Institute, Radix Journal, Identity Europe, VDARE, Counter-Currents and its editor-in-chief Greg Johnson. American Renaissance received a seven day block and a warning from Facebook. Other white nationalist, racist and extreme right sites like American Renaissance, the National Policy Institute and Counter-Currents were dropped by PayPal. 

It was this crackdown that created the sudden financial success of GAB. And in the next year of its existence it gained another 600.000 new profiles. It shouldn't surprise us that GAB attracted very specific audiences. It was full of people who were too extreme for mainstream digital media. GAB provided a new home for extreme right algorithmic activists like MicroChip, RIP-trolls like Weev (who was eventually even banned on GAB) and the editor-in-chief of the ‘ironic neo-nazi-site The Daily Stormer’ Andrew Anglin. Even big data research could establish that it contained more than double the amount of hate speach than Twitter.

The New Right Digital economy?

All extreme right activists openly support initiatives as GAB, Bitchute, WeSearchr and Hatreon. They saw and see it as a backup, as a plan B, in case the major Internet companies ‘de-platform’ them. The ease with which sites like GAB, The Daily Stormer, WeSearchr and Hatreon can be pushed to the dark web, or put out of business, shows that setting up such an alternative digital economy is more difficult than it seems. They still need to have urls, services like Cloudflare and PayPal in order to be part of the surface, normal web. 

Even more, this exercise can probably only succeed if those actors are able to build up a critical mass before they set up their alternative platforms. This is where their integration in the surface web and especially in mainstream digital media, and the spotlights of mainstream media is still of crucial importance. 

The crackdown in itself, can and will be used to further enlarge that audience.

After some of their own sites were not manageable anymore after the crackdown, New Right activists did invest more in fringe media. They made accounts and donated money, but they still preferred mainstream digital media.

In the year after Charlottesville,  they first and foremost shifted attention to YouTube. In 2018, the video platform is clearly one of the most favorite media to facilitate the metapolitical battle of New Right activists. It helps them building up larger audiences. And because YouTube is very well-integrated in Google, it serves as a point of entry into the digital mainstream. Even more, it also helps them monetize their content. 

GAB was exactly what its dog whistle discourse aimed to be: a free space of only the most radical New Right activists. In the post-Charlottesville era, it gained more and more importance as a phatic infrastructure and an organizational tool of the most extreme right fringes. 

Take for example the case of Andrew Anglin, the editor-in-chief of The Daily Stormer. He used GAB from the fall of 2017 up until a couple of days ago to inform his audiences on the whereabouts of his site when he was roaming the dark web in search of a new Google-indexed haven. This was quite effective, as he was still able to set up doxing raids from the dark web by posting new articles on the Daily Stormer. 

However, as a metapolitical instrument, it wasn’t effective at all. There were hardly any ‘normies’ present.

De-platforming, branding and new audiences

As long as New Right activists have a place in the digital mainstream, the construction of a New Right economy will always be a plan B. Only the most extreme New Right activists will leave the mainstream voluntarily. Even Andrew Anglin and his 'ironic neo-nazis' only moved to GAB when they had no other way out anymore.

The more people (and money) that poured into GAB after the Charlottesville crackdown, the more the network effect started to work. The longer that those New Right activists are integrated in the digital mainstream, the better their chances are at setting up an alternative digital economy as they start reaching out to an ever-larger audience. 

Paradoxically, the crackdown in itself, can and will be used to further enlarge that audience. Alt-right celebrity and troll leader Milo was known to a particular niche before Twitter banned him, but he became far more famous afterwards. Just before the ban, he had 338K followers on Twitter; today he has more than 800K subscribers on his YouTube channel alone. 

The problem is twofold. First of all, such crackdowns usually happen after very sensational, mass-mediated events. Within that hype, the crackdown in itself becomes a huge story that in turn generates a huge amount of press coverage. It is the crackdown in itself that pushes those activists and their platforms into the mainstream. Who knew Milo before the Twitter ban? Who knew about GAB or The Daily Stormer before the ban? Or more concretely, before they were mentioned in mainstream media. 

The broad public probably only knew about the existence of GAB when mainstream media mentioned that Robert Bowers, the man who shot and killed at least 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue, had an account on GAB. This drove huge amounts of traffic to GAB. This was an unusual amount, that made GAB proudly tweet that they were getting 1 million hits an hour all day. 

GoDaddy therefore pulled support after the existence of GAB was communicated to the world at large.

Crackdowns, metapolitics and fake news 

The second problem with such a crackdown, is that it is seemingly randomly decided by private companies (and not, for instance, by the state as the institute that should guard the boundaries of the public sphere and let law prevale).

The Daily Stormer was protected by CloudFlare for years before they decided to stop delivering their services. And it had to be clear to them long before Charlottesville that The Daily Stormer was harrassing people, producing huge amounts of hate speech on a daily basis and organizing doxxing raids and intimidation campaigns on regular basis. 

The crackdown was immediately used to further establish the powerful political myth that the left censors right wing voices.

The big internet companies seem to be very willing to turn a blind eye if they are able to monetize hatespeech and hategroups. In the name of free speech, and probably because they are afraid to intervene or don't know how to intervene, they let those radical groups thrive online. Until offline violence occurs, and then damage control actions are taken in a hurry.

Feeding the monster

The (non)-policy of internet companies only strengthens the New Right activists. It allows them to first build a broad audience, radicalize and monetize it. The crackdown itself pushes them further into the mainstream and even more importantly, allows them to produce the New Right myth in the mainstream that all (digital) media are owned by them left, which censors right wing conservatives. 

That is exactly what we saw happening in the last couple of days. And of course, GAB was, at least discursively, exceptionally well-prepared for that. The founding discourse of GAB in itself was made to score in the context of a crackdown. The news that GoDaddy pulls support was immediately being framed by GAB as censorship, as proof that Silicon Valley, and by extension all centers of media and political power are being dominated by cultural Marxists. 

The line of defence that GAB Torda communicates consistently highlighted the double standards of providers like GoDaddy towards the right. GAB started posting Pastebin documents full of links to hate speech towards Trump on Twitter. New Right activists started to post screen shots of ‘I hate white people’ tweets. InfoWars immediately interviewed GAB CEO Torda and framed it as another de-platforming of conservative voices. RamzPaul made a YouTube video to highlight the double standards policy.

The crackdown was immediately used to further establish the powerful political myth that the left censors right wing voices. It helps to undermine the trust of people in mainstream news and further radicalizes the ones who were already in the New Right bubble. It helps to support the idea that the mainstream media are fake news; that they blue-pill the people.